A guest post by Misha Ewen
William Petre (1575-1637) was a typical gentleman of his time. He was 22 years old and newly married when he began keeping an account book of his household expenses. Between 1597 and 1610 Petre recorded the money he spent on maintaining his estate, including servants’ wages, as well as charity to the poor, lodging, and sustenance during his journeys to London. Studying documents that reveal the minutiae of the everyday in early modern England—like receipts, diaries, and financial accounts—is deeply satisfying, as it allows us to peel back time and peek into the worldview and experiences of people in the past. One of my aims during my two-month fellowship at the Folger has been to find out how experiences of travel and colonization in the New World infused English society, politics, and culture, becoming familiar and commonplace.
Petre’s receipts are a good place to start such an investigation: he bought several beaver hats dyed white (one was embellished with a “spangled band”) and purchased tobacco and pipes from several different commercial contacts in London, sometimes even detailing the location where he made his buy—Smithfield Bar, for instance. Petre’s taste for the New World was not unusual or unique, and was entirely fashionable for a Jacobean gentleman. His purchases call up a striking image of this young man, who visited taverns in London frequented by literary types, in his white beaver hat with a pipe lodged between his teeth. But consumption only gets us so far, and it is necessary to look elsewhere to examine in greater depth how people felt about such encounters.
Even before the colonization of Jamestown in 1607, America was shaping society in England. I’m particularly interested in the impact that overseas trade and settlement had on English political and print culture, but I’m also concerned with how “ordinary” people encountered a growing English empire at home: through donations they made in parish churches, by playing at the Virginia Company lotteries, or by getting caught up in the practices of forced migration. The Folger is rich in material that illuminates how English subjects encountered and responded to the New World, especially in print and manuscript.
In a commonplace book from the mid-seventeenth century, one writer was concerned with descriptions from voyages of “discovery” in the Elizabethan period, which conveys a very immediate sense of wonderment (sometimes the narrative even slides into the first person). One revealing passage is on the ventures of Martin Frobisher and the native people, “the colour of a ripe olive,” that the English met. The writer was consulting a “Description of the Esquimaux” from Frobisher’s Third Voyage, first printed in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (1578).
Readers actively engaged with texts about the New World through “commonplacing” (the practice of copying out passages from a book into a hand-written journal), but also through inscribing marginalia in the printed texts themselves. In a copy of John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia (1624), which was first presented to King James VI and I, a reader marked in the value of shares that different Virginia Company investors had acquired. They did not complete this task, but what they did include tells us that they were reading Smith alongside a pamphlet published by the Virginia Company: A Declaration of the State of the Colonie and Affaires in Virginia with the Names of the Adventurors (1620). In essence, the writer was imitating the Virginia Company’s own practice of highlighting the support it received from wealthy and honourable patrons. Elsewhere they marked with interest what they deemed to be essential passages, on how to “subject” the “savages” in Virginia; in the period following the 1622 attack on Jamestown colonists by the Algonquians, this would have been of greater concern to a reader in England.
In a copy of Robert Johnson’s The New Life of Virginia (1612), the reader—who a past bookseller surmised was “a writer of great learning”—similarly annotated his copy of promotional literature, though this time with lines from Juvenal’s Satires. Johnson’s pamphlet was meant to promote the honourable undertaking of colonization in Virginia to English audiences, but this reader, it seems, only poked fun. It is, nevertheless, very suggestive of the ways that contemporaries associated humanist learning with colonization.
In the image below, “Credite me vobis foliu(m) recitare syb(yllae)” from Juvenal’s Satire 8 translates as “Trust me to recite for you the Sibyl’s leaf,” or, more literally, “I’m telling the gospel truth.”1
To find out more about how people who could not afford to purchase beaver hats or promotional literature encountered the New World, I will need to conduct further research in local, regional archives in England. But the material at the Folger, especially the “dirty” copies of print, has told me something new about audiences who observed the colonization of Virginia in the early seventeenth century: they were not buying print, reading and laying it aside, but actively interpreting what they read—no doubt in a much wider context of knowledge about America through news sharing, the theatre, consumption, and even political debate.
Misha Ewen is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the University of Kent as part of the Leverhulme funded Political Economies of International Commerce project. Her research focuses on trade corporations and the English empire in the seventeenth century, including its impact on English society, politics, and culture. She is currently completing articles on the transatlantic tobacco trade and women investors in the Virginia Company.